Leila and Martha
Ten happy women – mothers, big sisters, grandmothers, aunties – each with one child on their lap and another in the crook of their arm, each reading away; and the teacher, the skilled craftsman, over there, ready to build. That is my dream of an infant classroom.
Some of the women can scarcely read themselves. It doesn’t matter; in a little while the children will be helping them, gravely, equally, and what an enchanting sight that will be…and the teacher helping both. But what they are giving is their warm, soft, firm bodies, the sensuousness, the cherishing, the lovingness of being-read-aloud-to.
This is what has always given reading its meaning for middle-class children, with their picture books from the cradle, pictures candidly looked at together, examined, identified, talked about, linked with personal experience, grief and joy – nursery rhymes said and sung and jigged to and laughed at, in close physical intimacy – story books read at bedtime to take drowsily and warmly into dreams, still breathing an adult’s body-smell – listening, feeling, touching, smelling, talking, reading, all merging together. Reading has never been for them an alien academic subject, a cold technique; by the time they come to school it is part of their personal, cherished identity, part of
“I know I am lovable because you love me.”
But the child from the bookless home comes stone cold to reading; and what do we give him in the classroom? We give him readers where father mows the lawn (what lawn is part of his life, for heaven’s sake?), and the children gather armfuls of dahlias and chrysanthemums from the garden, and mother (never mum) gives the Siamese cat and all the other pets their various dinners… where the whole family sits down to have breakfast at a snowy damask-clothed table, all properly dressed and calm, and full of polite grammatically correct, griefless, angerless, joyless, lifeless conversation. What sort of people are these? Nobody has to clock on, in the readers. The alienation is complete.
“Reading has nothing to do with us. It is one of their things. We will learn the trick like we learn all the other tricks; who knows, it might get us somewhere; anyway it will keep us out of trouble for a bit. And when we leave school we can drop it again with the other acrobatics.”
What is it like when “the children” in books in some mysterious way never includes you? When the mothers and fathers are nothing like your mother and father? When the things that trouble you and frighten you – as well as the things that delight you – are never mentioned? These children have never had the space, the pleasant surroundings, the privacy, the calm, the cherishing, the respect, the books and pictures and music, the talk and the discussions and the reading aloud, the companionable letters coming into the home and others going out again, that have helped other children’s confident identity to grow.
Society has already depersonalised them for five years before they even come to school. Is reading – which confirms middle-class people in their own human identity, helps them to accept grief and anger and fear in the knowledge that other people have known grief and anger and fear and gone on living, calls to them through time and space and gets a comrade’s answer – to be only an irrelevant technique that those in control make us learn in our compulsory schooldays?
Aren’t we aware of these five years that have already been lost, this gap that can only be bridged not just with technique, however clever, however painstaking, however professional, but with personal loving warmth? I know some teachers do bridge it, over and over again, simply because they like children. But aren’t there other people, both literate and illiterate, who would help, and whose help could be taken?
published in The Manchester Guardian 20/11/67